(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A nightmare vision of the African American experience, Runner Mack fittingly opens with Henry Adams dreaming of a painful encounter with a dentist. Awakening to discover a leaking ceiling to be the source of his nightmare, Henry soon finds himself in a violent encounter with Alvarez, the building superintendent. Alvarez’s refusal to speak English, his having stolen Henry’s pajamas, and his using a guard dog to protect him from the tenant quickly establish the motifs of the inability to communicate, exploitation, oppression, and Henry’s general sense of alienation.

On the way to a job interview in a crowded, noisy, impersonal metropolis resembling New York City, Henry is struck by a truck but continues on, with minor injuries, because of his determination to make a successful life for himself and his wife, Beatrice, in the North. Despite the clearly racist attitudes of the executives at Home Manufacturing, the desperate Henry, who has washed dishes, delivered fish, and sold encyclopedias since arriving in the city, accepts a position. He is disturbed by not knowing exactly what products the company makes and how the tasks he performs in the section known as “identification and recovery” fit into the greater scheme. Home Manufacturing controls its employees through indifference and intimidation.

Henry’s supervisor, the ironically named Mister Boye, crudely attempts to make Henry feel at ease by showing him pornographic...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

Runner Mack Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Runner Mack follows Henry Adams through a period in his life during which he moves from confusion and ignorance to a hard-bought understanding. At the beginning of the book, he has brought his new wife, Beatrice, to a Northern city, where he expects to become a baseball star. As the novel proceeds, Henry is beset by all the evils that human nature and American society can devise. As one confusing incident follows another in a world which is never explained to Henry, the dreams of stardom fade and are replaced by dreams of revolution. The revolution fails, however—indeed, it never begins—and at the end of the book, Henry has increased wisdom but diminished hopes.

The novel is divided into three segments. In the first, Henry has a single goal: to support his beloved new wife, Beatrice, while he waits for the big break that will make him a baseball star. Yet even that goal is difficult to realize in an absurd world. Beatrice is miserable in the city apartment where she and Henry live. The ceiling leaks; there is no heat; the neighbors are noisy; the Puerto Rican superintendent is apathetic. When Henry goes to the Home Manufacturing Company to apply for a job, he is hit by a huge truck. Although he gets the job, Henry is branded as a troublemaker; after overhearing a discussion which seems to threaten him, Henry leaves. Meanwhile, his baseball tryout has been unpromising, and his relationship with Beatrice is deteriorating. She is choked by...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Runner Mack Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. Complete history of the African American novel and its practitioners. Places Runner Mack in the context of such literary movements as critical realism, modernism, and postmodernism.

Klotman, Phyllis Rauch. Another Man Gone: The Black Runner in Contemporary Afro-American Literature. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977. Places Runner Mack in the context of the African American literary tradition, growing out of the slave narrative, of the symbolic run toward freedom. Analyzes the novel as a satirical quest.

Pinsker, Sanford. “About Runner Mack: An Interview with Barry Beckham.” Black Images 3 (Autumn, 1974): 35-41. Beckham discusses the comic elements in his novel in detail. He explains the influence of Invisible Man and The Education of Henry Adams and the reasons he chose to use baseball as a subject and Alaska as a setting. He comments on the ambiguous ending.

Umphlett, Wiley Lee. “The Black Man as Fictional Athlete: Runner Mack, the Sporting Myth, and the Failure of the American Dream.” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (Spring, 1987): 73-83. Examines Runner Mack as the first example of African American sports fiction and places it in the larger context of American sports literature. Shows how Beckham combines sociopolitical elements with American sporting myths.

Watkins, Mel. Introduction to Runner Mack, by Barry Beckham. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1983. Shows how the novel is an allegory of the historical injustices against African Americans. Compares Runner Mack to Invisible Man and to works by Franz Kafka. Argues effectively that Beckham uses baseball as a metaphor for the false hopes offered by American society to African Americans.

Weixlmann, Joe. “The Dream Turned ’Daymare’: Barry Beckham’s Runner Mack. ” MELUS 8 (Winter, 1981): 93-103. Deplores the lack of critical attention to Runner Mack and compares the novel favorably with Invisible Man. Ably analyzes the novel’s structure and pays considerable attention to the apparently pessimistic ending. Depicts Runner Mack as a flawed hero.